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James Jackson

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A Writer's Life, "I've Never Heard of You"

Posted: 30/09/11 01:00

Some fourteen years ago now, the fellow had marched across a crowded airport departure hall in order to deliver his crushing verdict. He entered the bookstore in which I was signing copies of my first thriller, picked up and briefly studied the paperback and slowly put it down, looked me in the eye and told me straight. Absolutely no doubt about it, he had definitely not heard of me. I smiled and replied: 'That's because I don't write children's fiction'. Security was called.

Such are the trials and encounters involved in writing for a living. Some never get used to it. One friend of mine - a hugely successful bestselling author - confided to me she feels genuine pain whenever she is gratuitously criticised. The revelation amazed me, for affirmation surely came in the millions of her books purchased and read avidly by her fans throughout the world. But no, the occasional brickbat still hurt.

She should count herself lucky. Another friend - an actress - stepped from the stage-door after a feted West End performance and found two American tourists waiting for her in the rain. Her face lit up. 'Did you enjoy the play?', she enquired. 'No, we really did not', bluntly came the reply. Well, she did ask and one cannot win them all. Maybe those in the creative world should grow a thicker skin and accept that criticism and subjectivity are part of the deal. Frankly, m'dear I have never really given a damn.

Indeed, I have always worked on the basis that reviews - like media interviews - reflect more on the individual penning the plaudits or poison than on anything one has produced oneself. One Amazon review - read to me down the phone with great relish by my brother - spoke of how 'It must be Jackson's friends and family who give him such good write-ups... he will be needing them'. I suspect that particular contributor is a frustrated and unpublished novelist, for they are ever the most spiteful.

On a bathroom wall I still have framed the first rejection letter that I ever received from an editor. Rather naively, and without the advice of an agent, I had punted a manuscript in her direction. A terrible mistake. She wrote back: 'The characterisation is thin, the dialogue unconvincing, and the violence gratuitous'. Ah well, that has never been known to stop a book deal. Within three weeks I had found myself an agent and shortly thereafter secured a pretty significant publishing advance (my agent bought herself a new pair of boots to celebrate). It was the very same book that provoked the airport bookshop incident. Beginner's luck, I suppose.

Few things prepare one for a career as an author. I kicked against it for years, resenting the isolation and even finding myself smoking cigarettes with tree surgeons working nearby (I am a non-smoker). Only now do I fully embrace this life of gainful unemployment, the freedom to lunch, the advantage of not trudging to work through the sleet and snow and darkness.

Complete the book, push it out, get on with the next. That is how it goes. After almost two years since the start-point, the title hits the stands and promotion begins. So too does the wait to gauge it is heading into The Sunday Times top-ten bestseller list. A friend once rang to say she had seen my books piled high in a famed London store and had spread them around to create an impression of high demand. That afternoon a second friend rang to inform me he had noticed my books spread about in the same bookshop and had piled them up to ensure a stronger visual presence. Avoid help from those you know.

A new book now begins its gestation and another historical thriller is due to appear in January 2012. So the cycle continues, a challenge, a total immersion, a privilege. Whilst giving a talk in Cambridge, I was once asked if there was any genre of writing I would not attempt. An easy question. It would have to be sci-fi: things are strange enough with a fan base that occasionally dresses as Templar knights. Readers garbed in bacofoil spacesuits would probably drive me over the edge. Yet the life of a writer would be impoverished without the truly committed.

As for the editor who so cruelly dismissed my first manuscript all those years ago - I gather she now works in the soft furnishings business.